Chargers vs. Bengals: Players with Most to Prove in AFC Wild Card Clash

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2014

Dec 29, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) celebrates with fans after defeating the Baltimore Ravens 34-17 at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

There are some players who have little to prove on Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Wild Card Round. Others, though, aren't so lucky, and they better have strong performances, or they'll feel the wrath come Monday morning.

The beauty of this game is that it's full of players who have to either atone for past postseason failures or are looking to build a reputation on the back of a strong playoff performance.

Among that group, these four players certainly have some question marks heading into the postseason and will need to perform above expectations if their respective team is to advance.

Andy Dalton

Enough has been made about Andy Dalton by now, so this should need little explanation. The Bengals will go as far as Dalton can take them. When he struggles, the entire team struggles, as evidenced by the last two postseasons.

Dalton has shown some progress this season. His interception numbers are up, but he set career highs in both yards and touchdowns.

During a press conference earlier in the week, the third-year QB was asked how much he needs the win to boost his own career, per

When you talk to Marvin, you talk to some of the coaches, that’s something that we haven’t done – we haven’t won a playoff game. People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven’t won a playoff game. You’ve got to win. That’s what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win. That’s the way it works. For me, we need to get a win in this one. There’s always going to be something that’s going to be wrong, but to get a win would be big.

If Joe Flacco, Trent Dilfer and Jeff Hostetler can lead a team to the Super Bowl, why can't Dalton?

Dre Kirkpatrick

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 29:  Dre Kirkpatrick #27 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after returning an interception for touchdown during the NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens  at Paul Brown Stadium on December 29, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Leon Hall is on injured reserve, and Terence Newman is listed as doubtful on the Bengals' injury report. That means Dre Kirkpatrick will likely once again get the call. He's been filling in for Newman while the veteran corner's been hurt.

Teams haven't been afraid to target the second-year cornerback, as Bleacher Report's Andrea Hangst writes:

The Bengals need to be prepared for this to happen again, with corner Dre Kirkpatrick likely getting the most attention should Newman again be sidelined with his MCL sprain. Kirkpatrick has been picked on often over the three weeks he has started in place of Newman, with 18 targets thrown his direction.

In that time, 10 have been caught, for 110 yards and one touchdown. However, he's also showed off what made him a first-round draft pick in 2012, notching two interceptions in those three games.

The Chargers will move Keenan Allen all over the place to try to get him touches, so don't be surprised when he's lined up against Kirkpatrick. On paper, it's a major mismatch, and San Diego should exploit this at every opportunity.

This will be a great litmus test to see where Kirkpatrick can go in the future. The Bengals can't keep relying on Newman and Adam Jones. It would be great if the former Alabama star could have a huge game and inspire some confidence from the coaching staff and fanbase.

Ryan Mathews

Over his four years in the league, Ryan Mathews has been one of the most frustrating running backs. His inconsistent performances have caused many angry reactions from both Chargers fans and fantasy football owners.

However, it all seemed to come together for Mathews in 2013. He stayed healthy and rushed for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns. In six games this season, including three of the last four, Mathews eclipsed 100 yards.

In order for Philip Rivers to succeed, Mathews will need to establish himself as a threat on the ground. That will force the Cincinnati front seven to respect the running game, so as not to focus too much of its attention on the pass rush.

Even without Geno Atkins and possibly Wallace Gilberry, there are enough players to get after Rivers in the pocket. But they'll be slowed down somewhat if Mathews is able to have a big game.

D.J. Fluker

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 01: Offensive tackle D.J. Fluker #76 of the San Diego Chargers battles defiensive end Wallace Gilberry #95 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Qualcomm Stadium on December 1, 2013 in San Diego, California. The Bengals won 17-10.  (Photo
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

When these teams met earlier in the regular season, D.J. Fluker struggled to keep Michael Johnson in check. Although he failed to record a sack, the veteran defensive end was able to get in the pocket and harass Rivers.

This time around, Fluker will be in his natural right tackle position, per Tom Krasovic of the U-T San Diego:

Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both better than average, and Johnson got the better of Chargers rookie D.J. Fluker last time. This game, though, Fluker will be at right tackle, his natural position, as King Dunlap is to make his fifth start.

Although the rookie tackle won't have to deal with Johnson, he will have Carlos Dunlap. He tied for the team lead in sacks, with 7.5, and is a solid rusher coming off the left side of the line.

Gilberry might also be a problem for Fluker should he be able to play. He tied Dunlap with 7.5 sacks and was yet another defensive lineman they groomed and turned into a star.

This is why the Chargers drafted Fluker in the first round of the 2013 draft. They needed help on the offensive line, especially at the tackle position, and weren't afraid to take the former Alabama star with the 11th overall pick.

Now Fluker's got a chance to prove himself in a big way.